Materials World Modules

An Inquiry & Design-Based Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Program

Composites Module

Students find out what composite materials are and test them to learn their advantages over pure materials. They design a prototype composite material to make a strong, lightweight fishing pole.

By incorporating everyday materials into science lessons, the Materials World Modules (MWM) program at Northwestern University has found the solution to getting students excited about learning science while helping teachers meet national and state education standards.

The modules are easy to organize and inexpensive to run. They can be incorporated into any science class because of the breadth of subjects covered in the Activity and Design Project sections. Each module is a supplemental science unit that takes 1-3 weeks of class time (approximately 10 hours) to complete.

MWM will give students an opportunity to understand the world around them in a way they have never experienced before. The modules promote an awareness of the roles science and technology play in society and guide students to take increased control of their work.

Module At-a-Glance

Module At-a-Glance

Activity 1: Testing Different Kinds of Ice
By comparing pure ice with ice reinforced with toilet paper, students will learn what composite materials are and discover their relative strength.

Activity 2: Hunting for Composite Materials
Students will search their surroundings for objects made of composite materials. (they won't have to look far). They will get ideas about some of the advantages of different composites.

Activity 3: Exploring the Difference Between Strength and Stiffness
Strength and stiffness are two important properties of many composites. Students will test a variety of materials, comparing these two independent properties.

Activity 4: Testing a Foam Composite for Strength and Stiffness
When a plain beam made out of polystyrene gets reinforced, top and bottom, with a strip of construction paper, the resulting composite is much stronger and stiffer than the original beam. Students will test this for themselves and see some of the limitations of composites, as well.

Activity 5: Researching Composites
With this independent research project, students go to the library to find information on modern composites, how they were developed, how they are manufactured, and what people use them for. They will get a first-hand view of the close interconnections between science, technology, and society.

Design Project 1: Designing a Fishing Pole
Based on what they learned about strength, stiffness, and composites testing and construction, students will participate in a contest to build the strongest, most flexible, and lightest fishing pole. But no hooks, lines, or sinkers will be flying around your classroom. The fishing-pole prototyping is done in miniature, with plastic straws as the base.

Design Project 2: Designing a New Material
Students will build on their independence as they design, test, evaluate, and redesign a composite material of their own making for whatever use they deem appropriate. The project simulates the process engineers use when they work on new designs and may inspire some students to look into a career in the applied sciences.

Connecting to Your Curriculum

Connecting to Your Curriculum

Materials World Modules are simple to organize and inexpensive to run. They are designed to be easily incorporated into any middle school science or high school science lab or lecture course. The chart below lists the subjects covered in the Activities and Design Projects sections of this module.

Physics & Physical Science

  • Forces
  • Loads and Stresses
  • Tensile and Compressive Forces
  • Torque
  • Elastic Interactions
  • Vectors

Geology & Earth Science

  • Formation and Composition of Rocks
  • Sedimentary Rock
  • Metamorphic Intrusions
  • Mining
  • Using Mineral Resources
  • Rock as a Building Material
  • Petroleum Products

Language Arts

  • Writing a report
  • Public speaking


  • Structure of Solids
  • Carbon-based Materials
  • Polymers
  • Structure of Molecules
  • Bonding
  • Metallic Bonds
  • Covalent Bonds
  • Van der Waals Forces


  • Measuring
  • Graphing (Making, Reading and Analysis)
  • Making Scale Models
  • Standard Deviations

Biology and Life Science

  • Structure and Function
  • Bones
  • Muscles
  • Connective Tissue
  • Wings and Feathers
  • Leaves, Stems, and Roots

Technical Education

  • Designing and Drafting
  • Planning and Drawing
  • Evaluating Efficiency
  • Cost/Benefit Analysis
  • Quality Control
  • Materials (Woods; Metals; Plastics; Lamination)
  • Structures and Codes
  • Aircraft Construction
  • Suspension Systems
  • Body Shop

Math Teaser

The Egyptianate Building

You’re asked to design a structural element for an Egyptianate building - using a very expensive material for its face. (see examples on the right)


Therefore you want to minimize the area of the front surface - and you must also minimize bending and rotation.



What is the best shape for the column element – triangular, rectangular or I-beam?

cats Essex Road

© Copyright ceridwen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright and credit: Jane Parker


Standards Alignment

Standards Alignment

AAAS Benchmark Standards


NSES Standards


Grades 9-12


Grades 9-12

1. The Nature of Science


A. Science as Inquiry


B. Scientific inquiry

1. Ability to do scientific inquiry

C. The Scientific enterprise

2. Understanding scientific inquiry

2. The Nature of Mathematics


B. Physical Science


A. Patterns and relationships


2. Structure and properties of matter

B. Mathematics, science, and technology

4. Motions and forces

C. Mathematical inquiry


5. Conservation of energy


3. The Nature of Technology


E. Science and Technology


A. Technology and science

1. Ability of technological design

B. Design and systems

2. Understanding science and technology

4. The Physical Setting


G. History and Nature of Science


D. Structure of matter

1. Science as a human endeavor

F. Motion

3. Historical perspectives

8. The Designed World




B. Materials and manufacturing



11. Common Themes




A. Systems




B. Models



12. Habits of Mind




B. Computation and estimation



D. Communication skills



Video Clips

Video Clips

Ken Turner talks about the Composites Module
View Youtube video


Material Data Safety Sheets (MSDS) have valuable information concerning substances used in this MWM kit.

MSDS 5 min. Epoxy

MSDS Rubber Cement

MSDS Strapping Tape

Composites Module Intro

@ Materials World Modules